To mourn or not to mourn Mutharika: Demystifying death

I have been profoundly intrigued by the view expressed by a significant number of individuals in Malawi and elsewhere in response to the apparent sense of public euphoria over President Bingu wa Mutharika’s sudden death. The view holds that it is un-African not to mourn or respect the dead irrespective of the deeds of the deceased. This view has been made by Mutharika’s sympathisers and enemies alike, and thus deserves to be taken seriously and, crucially, interrogated.

Several key questions immediately come to mind. Is there evidence in support of the existence of such a principle in Africa and in Malawi in particular? If so, are there good reasons for believing in it?

To assert that it is African to mourn every dead person whether that person was good or not is to say that every African society recognises this principle. This invites the question: do all African societies know such a principle? The answer is clearly no, for I know a number of Malawian and other African ethnic groups whose practices do not conform to this principle.

Mutharika: The Dictator is dead

In many cultural groups in Malawi, the concept of equality in death, at least from the perspective of according equal respect to the dead does not exist or exists only in mutilated form. In fact, the rites that apply to a person’s death depend on social status, age, birth status, origin, deeds, etc.

A common man and a chief, for example, receive different forms of respect, and so do children, women and men. A baby who dies within the first week of birth is often dispatched secretly, after observing abbreviated funeral rites. And one’s deeds do actually play a role in the sort of respect one’s death receives. For example, when a person commits suicide, some Malawian cultures do not allow the public display of grief by any person.

The death of a person who is known to be a witchcraft practitioner, which in the traditional setting is the most heinous crime, is given far less respect than the death of anybody else. The relatives of a person who does not show up at other people’s funerals are usually left without much assistance in the event of that person’s death. Perhaps the most vivid proof of the inequality that attended to value of the life and death of persons of different social status in African traditional settings is illustrated by the famous funeral scene of Tchaka Zulu’s mother who had to be buried together with more than a dozen young girls slaughtered at the direction of the King to company the King’s mother.

Clearly therefore, the statement that it is un-African not to mourn or respect the dead is not supported by evidence of a homogenous African practice in this regard. It is the case, quite on the contrary, that some African groups treat the dead differently and, in some cases, show no respect at all to the dead, or show diminished respect depending on their status and moral standing.

But it could be true that some African societies respect the dead irrespective of the status of the deceased, let alone their deeds. This invites further questions: Are these societies justified in believing in this principle? What is it about death that justifies the living to respect every dead person even when the dead person was their enemy or oppressor?

If a society holds this principle, it must of necessity also uphold the belief in the equal respect of every living human being, not just when they die, unless we give credible reasons why death, and not life, justifies equal respect. However, it does not sound right to require a person to give equal respect to those that have done bad things to that person and to those that have done good things to that person. For example, it is implausible to say that a woman must respect, empathise with or assist a man that raped her. On the contrary, she is expected to exact revenge by pressing criminal charges against him or seeking civil damages. Even in the biblical worldview, forgiveness seems to be tied to repentance and remorse. If we agree that there is no moral obligation to empathise with, help or assist those that have done wrong to us while they are alive (unless perhaps when they are remorseful or have sought forgiveness), then we must also agree that the same should apply when that person dies, unless we can point to something in death which justifies the change of principle.

The view in some African societies that we should respect the dead even if their deeds were harmful to that society is derived from a dualist theory of personal identity. According to this theory, every person is composed of two essential parts – a soul or spirit (an immaterial entity) and a body (a physical entity). Death is then seen as a process that results in the total destruction of the body, but not the soul which is immortal. The view that the African family consists of the dead, the living and the unborn derives from this thinking. The soul enters the body at birth, parts with it at death, and hovers around that society indefinitely.

The souls of the dead do not just survive death; they play a continuing role in the lives of the living. They can bring bad or good luck on any person. They can also cause famine, drought or epidemics in society.

It is from this account of the nature and role of the soul that the fear of the dead is derived. If we do not respect the dead, their souls might visit some form of harm on us. It does not matter that that person was a bad person. We must placate his or her soul by giving respect to his or her remains, and by following all customary funeral rites.

Is this account of personal identity and the soul true? May be not. Many philosophers have questioned dualism, pointing among other things to the unintelligibility of the interaction between the body and soul, to doubts about the constitution and role of the soul, and to the lack of tangible proof of the existence of the immaterial soul. Many Africans actually no longer believe that their dead relatives survive death as souls which play an active role in their lives. Received religions have also shaped and altered our understanding of personal identity and the nature and consequences of death. For example, many Christian faiths teach that death is the annihilation of the body and envision the resurrection of the soul to occur only upon the return of Jesus. On this account, we may discount the role of the souls of the dead in our lives before Jesus comes back.

A more compelling version of personal identity has been posited which negates the existence of the soul and rather focuses on the physical human body and the capabilities it posses. On this view, death means the destruction of the body so that it is unable to function as a living being. Once dead, a person no longer exists and can occasion no harm to anyone.

Respect for the remains of such a dead person does not arise from the fear of what his or her soul might do to the living, for there are no souls. Rather, it arises out of an acknowledgement and appreciation of the value which that person brought to family, friends and society while alive. However, such show of respect is worthless to the dead person, since he or she, being non-existent, cannot appreciate it. Its value must therefore lie in the psychological effect it has on the living, in which case talk of respect for the dead amounts to nothing other than talk of self-interest.

*Danwood M Chirwa; Professor of Law at the University of Cape Town and Editor-in-Chief of the Malawi Law Journal.

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